Amid the devastation caused by Sandy, there are signs the superstorm might have blown a fresh breeze into the nation’s politics. Suddenly, everyone’s talking about something that seemed impossible just days before — bipartisanship.
Nothing sums that attitude up better than the actions of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Republican Christie, who has worked closely with GOP hopeful Mitt Romney’s campaign and has consistently proved one of President Obama’s harshest critics, put that aside in the aftermath of Sandy.
Pundits on both sides of the aisle have taken notice. And the photos of a concerned-looking Obama and earnest-looking Christie shaking hands next to Marine One on the tarmac in Atlantic City may become iconic images of the disaster.
Christie went out of his way to praise Obama for the president’s actions before and after the storm.
“I thank the president publicly for that,” he told Fox News on Tuesday. And at a news conference on Wednesday with the president at his side, Christie described his dealings with Obama as “a great working relationship to make sure that we’re doing the jobs that people elected us to do.”
The more cynical among us would say that, much like Hurricane Sandy, this too shall pass. But there are tantalizing clues to the contrary, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.
“This massive storm and this remarkable ‘bromance’ between Obama and Christie, and the apparent ability of them to move things forward and to help a devastated state and people in need, is going to add to the momentum to do something,” he says.
Even before Sandy, the theme of bipartisanship has been a staple on the campaign trail in recent weeks, with both candidates talking togetherness credentials in hopes of swaying any lingering fence-sitting voters.
An Associated Press-GfK poll showed that likely voters favor Romney over Obama as the candidate most likely to end the stalemate in Washington. A Pew Research Center poll published in June asked whether people liked political leaders who are “willing to make compromises to get the job done.” Ninety percent of Democrats said yes, while 68 percent of Republicans agreed. Those percentages are up from 77 percent and 66 percent, respectively, in 1987.
The issue of bipartisanship has also bubbled up in many down-ballot races amid congressional gridlock and approval ratings for the legislative branch that are at slightly improved, but still near historically low levels.
Ornstein points to the Indiana U.S. Senate race, where tea party-supported Richard Mourdock unseated long-time Republican incumbent Richard Lugar in the primary and promptly announced that “Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.” Mourdock, whose remarks since then about rape have garnered him national attention, has struggled in what is a fairly reliable red state.
“Let’s face it: That remark about his unwillingness to compromise played a hand here,” Ornstein says.
In Massachusetts, incumbent Sen. Scott Brown has touted his bipartisan credentials in hopes of holding onto his seat against challenger Elizabeth Warren. In Ohio, longshot Democratic challenger Joyce Healy-Abrams has tried to use bipartisanship as an issue in her campaign to unseat GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs.
Ornstein says he thinks the Senate will move toward greater bipartisanship after the Nov. 6 election, but he’s less optimistic about the House.
“I think the Senate is going to unleash a significant number of problem-solvers across the spectrum,” he says. “That’s been building. I have had conversations with Republican senators who’ve said ‘I’m tired of just voting no all the time. That’s not why I’m here.'”
“The House is going to grow more polarized and the willingness to compromise is not going to be apparent,” Ornstein says.
Neil Malhotra, a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has co-authored two studies on voter attitudes about bipartisanship in recent years.
His research suggests that most voters like the idea of bipartisanship in the abstract, but want their individual representatives to be uncompromisingly partisan.
“Even strong Republicans and strong Democrats have a higher opinion of congress when it’s framed as working together,” he says. “But both strong Republicans and strong Democrats want their own members to behave in an extreme fashion that is not bipartisan.”
It’s a paradox, Malhotra says. “People want a Congress that is full of people doing exactly what they don’t want.”